Some admitted it more readily than others, but it certainly seemed like everyone had their doubts. How can I be a middle school writing teacher when I just completed my first year of college? How could we possibly build meaningful community over the course of a short summer in which we only ever meet through Zoom? These are such hard times – how could we possibly be what the kids need us to be for them?
Our virtual PATH Summer Program began with plenty of fears and uncertainties. Gearing up for our third summer with our PATHfinders – rising seventh- through ninth-graders at St. John the Evangelist and Santa Cruz schools in Tucson, Arizona – we didn’t quite know how we’d pull it off. If you ask any of our students, you’d quickly learn that the hallmark of a PATH Summer is the dynamic spirit and fun infused in the academic, spiritual, and communal components of each day. A key to this spirit is the fact that our teachers are current college students exploring careers in education (part of our dual mission) through a summer internship as a teacher.
This summer, our faculty was made up of 12 college students (seven from Notre Dame and five from Tucson) Zooming in from bedrooms, kitchens, and basements across the country. With two weeks of intensive training, ongoing mentorship and coaching from seasoned educators, and bonding from afar, they set sail on a five-week journey with our middle schoolers, putting up with daily changes to the schedule and expectations as we adapted to the needs of our kids. Deeply buying into our programmatic beliefs of “Ancora Imparo” – We are always learning – and “Find A Way or Make A Way,” these 12 brave souls gritted their way through tears and frustrations synonymous with the first days of so many teaching careers.
As the summer moved along, we witnessed more and more smiles, confidence, and learning (from the intern teachers and the PATHfinders!). Whether it was detective work in math class, fun debates to hone writing skills, or the use of art as a lens into activism, our intern teachers modeled creativity and drive that inspired all of us more veteran teachers tasked with guiding their formation. It was clear that true teaching and learning was happening, even through a screen and at the hands of our novice educators. But how truly engaged were the PATHfinders? Our commitment to walking with these youngsters is slated to go to and through high school and college, and we needed to know: had we built a meaningful community?
Fast forward to the final week of our summer. We asked our intern teachers to make sure that the final Friday’s communal time be one that wrapped up our summer. They took that and ran with it, proposing:
- PATH Prom
- Praise & Worship
- Field Day
- Art Showcase
- Awards Night
- and PATH Graduation for our rising ninth graders
We were initially tempted to remind our intern teachers of all the research suggesting that students couldn’t be asked to be in front of a screen that long for school, but we decided to let them keep their dreams big and see what happened.
What did happen was truly beautiful. The kids showed up, and they kept showing up for Zoom event after Zoom event those last couple of days. Their families joined them too for parts they were invited to. Thursday night to Friday night of that final week felt like a marathon of Zoom, and it was a sight to behold.
One student shared a stunning poem she’d written about anxiety as a capstone for her public speaking class, leading to a screen full of adults and kids in awe. Even more beautifully, it led to a chat full of genuine and heartfelt affirmations from her peers celebrating her bravery and her way with words.
After delightfully endless speeches of thanksgiving and joy from many of the graduates, the call finally had to come to an end, but no one seemed to want to leave. We just about had to kick the kids off the call in order to get to our final faculty wrap-up!
I was awe-struck by the kids all summer and that whole day, but I think my favorite part was this final faculty meeting. Those doubts from the beginning of summer as to whether or not meaningful community could be built in such a short time with Zoom as the only mode of connection were surely answered as new kinds of tears streamed from some teachers’ faces. It was abundantly clear that the depth of connections the kids had felt were mutual and added onto the connectedness the team had with one another.
One after another, the teachers reflected on what this experience meant to them and how much the community meant to them. One summed it up by naming that they built a community online from all over the country, coming together to learn about themselves, each other, and the role of education, wishing such a program existed for her when she was in the kids’ shoes.
A virtual summer for PATH meant that we used Zoom to enter into each other’s homes each day, but the truly beautiful thing about this vision of Catholic education was that we used community in Christ to enter into each other’s lives.